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MetroStage Counter's Isabel Blues with Laughs

Theater Review

Theater-goers looking for a comedy to lift their spirits after the impact of Hurricane Isabel, need look no further than MetroStage on North Royal Street in Alexandria. This is where "Rough Crossing," Tom Stoppard's fast-paced farce about show folk on an ocean liner has opened a six-week run filled with laughs.

Stoppard, known as a playwright who constructs sharp dialogue and intricate plots, is in a particularly funny mode in this classic high-octane farce with six strongly etched characters.

There's the pair of playwrights trying to fix the script of their new show before the ship arrives in New York for its Broadway opening. There are the stars of the show that have their own romance to worry about. There is the composer of the show's songs who struggles with a speech impediment and, through it all, there is the ship's steward on his maiden voyage who gets tipsier and tipsier as the evening progresses.

The show is at its funniest when that steward is on stage. Not only has Stoppard written some of his funniest material for that character, but MetroStage has also cast Ian Gould in the role. Gould is a recent graduate of Michael Kahn's Academy of Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, and is making his MetroStage debut with this show.

He avoids the trap of overdoing the comedy of his character's lack of sea-legs early on so that his progressive inebriation gradually builds the running gag that he consumes most of the drinks he is supposed to be serving.

Running gags are the delight of many fans of farce and half of the fun is anticipating how many different versions of a gag the author can come up with. But an over emphasis from the actor can squelch the fun. Gould has just the right light touch to keep the fun going right up to the final bit.

WHETHER IT IS Gould's training or simply his innate ability, his quick thinking was notable on opening night when one wheel of a serving cart didn't make it onto the stage, leaving him with a tipping tray of breakfast to serve. Gould simply uncovered the dish of kippers and eggs and, with aplomb, placed the cover under the short leg of the cart, earning a round of applause from an appreciative audience and allowing the scene to continue unabated.

The team of actors portraying the team of authors is a delight as well. Michael Russotto has more of the on-stage time between the two of them but Jack Vernon makes the most of his briefer time, while each brightens the pace and keeps the fun moving right along. Their collaboration with Steven Tipton as the speech impaired composer works, but not quite as well, as the script doesn't really give Tipton the opportunity to set up his impairment as clearly as it should. Still, there are many laughs built on the delays in his speech that are in no way pandering but, rather, lively constructions that create non-sequiturs out of interlocking conversations.

Nicole Mestress McDonnell is the star of the show-within-a-show and she handles the broad humor well. Carl Randolph is less satisfying as her lecherous co-star who is called upon to sing and dance which Randolph doesn't do quite as well as one would like.

The show they all are working on is a musical but this farce does not attempt to be one. There are three songs built into the farce which were written by Stoppard [lyrics] and André Previn [music]. Previn and Stoppard had worked together before on "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour" which had been billed as "a play for actors and orchestra" and had a full orchestra on stage. There were no such pretensions for this piece, which simply has a piano for the character of the composer to play. The cast rehearses the songs which are light and lovely in the mode of Ivor Novello, the British songwriter known as The English Jerome Kern.

MetroStage's design team has done a great job on this production. Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.'s set is a two-deck exterior for the first act which rotates to reveal the ship's piano bar where the cast rehearses their show in the second. Michele Reisch's costumes are as bright and colorful as that set and both combine to emphasize the 1930's period and the upper class luxury of the ship.